Most of Israeli society is not fully prepared for the possibility of peace between Israel and the neighboring Palestinian and other Arab nations. Although the vision and occasional programs of peace are being advocated by political organizations, peace movements and the international community, they fail to gain sustainable public acceptance. Israeli media channels constantly cover the actual aspects of the conflict but refer to the end of conflict as a remote possibility.
In my many public engagements, interactions, lectures and discussions, I gained important insights on why the Israeli public is reluctant to engage in a serious peace process - whether direct or mediated by international allies - that will end the conflict with the Palestinians. Following are six common emotional perceptions I found that hinder the possibility of peace for most Israelis. In the absence of substantial progress over the past 20 years, conservative governments, mass media and education systems, by action or by inaction, supported the fixation of these concepts in the public mindset.
In Israel, anxiety persists in personal and national level. Although objectively Israel enjoys a high level of security, ironically Israelis share a collective experience of constant threat. The narratives of the exile, the Holocaust, anti- Semitism, wars, thousands of terrorist attacks and enemies calling for the destruction of the State of Israel, all maintain a mental state of victimhood, persecution and fear of annihilation. Over the years, Israel’s basic need for security became a core value, rather than the infrastructure for realization of higher national and social aspirations. This defensive state leaves no mental room for empathy or climate for creative approaches for peace.
Absence of positive motivation for peace
No longer is there consensus in Israeli society that peace carries an urgent or essential advantage. With the phenomenal development of Israel, the moral, spiritual and material benefits of peace practically disappeared from public discourse. Today these voices are often labeled as defeatist, naive or even traitorous. The effective Israeli military defense systems created a sense of relative immunity and ability to bear the consequences of the conflict, and at an acceptable cost.
Security and peace are perceived as dichotomous concepts
Following a long history of failed agreements and negotiations, many Israelis now believe that the peace and security are mutually exclusive, that peace can come only by compromising national and personal security. Reluctant to take any additional risks, most Israelis prefer familiar reality over a hazardous prospect.
Adaptation to conflict as an existential fate
Israelis were born or immigrated to a state of conflict. The long history of violent confrontations with the Arabs is seen as an integral part of the Israeli reality, with no realistic alternative. Military service is integrated into the identity of millions and although compulsory, it is perceived as a privileged ticket to a full citizenship. The reality of conflict is also supported by cultural values and symbols that glorify the fate of siege and righteousness, backed with biblical phrases such as “Forever you shall live by the sword” and Israel as “The people that shall dwell alone.” Under this climate not only a concept of peace is difficult to grasp, it is such a revolutionary notion that it is perceived as threatening.
Jewish Israelis distrust Arabs and the Arab world
Distrust of Arabs persists in the political, cultural, social and individual domains. Suspicion is amplified by the media that frequently expose the negative aspects of Arab culture throughout the Middle East. Quite naturally hatred and racism follow preventing the two societies from witnessing the human sides of each other.
Refusal to bargain national assets
A future peace agreement will entail Israel giving up sacred or vital national assets such as water resources, farmland, East Jerusalem and other parts of the Jewish homeland. Large segments of Israeli society believe that occupying all parts of the Holy Land is a value that justifies any cost and sacrifice. The settlers demonstrate ideals of determination, dedication and commitment that constitute a Zionist fulfillment model for many others.
Media channels, educational and governmental agencies – whether under left- leaning or right-wing governments – have cultivated these narratives and perceptions and effectively stabilized conservative positions. Traditionally, the Israeli public trusts the establishment to responsibly run the country’s affairs, mainly during the frequent violent conflicts. Despite criticism about the quality of government, especially in points of friction with the citizens, Israeli culture rarely produces strong protest movements – indeed, active protest is even tagged as subversive and weakening the collective.
This strong adherence to the government has a positive side: a peace driven government will have the power to lead Israel through a peace process, even through internal and external opposition. But to ensure success, any serious attempt to end the conflict will have to successfully address the six barriers discussed above. Effective educational and communication support programs will fuel the peace process, improve the prospects of its completion and enroll the Israeli society in internal and external reconciliation.
But in the meantime, it is the duty of peace organizations to develop adequate responses to the six challenges and communicate them to the public in every possible way. This is a huge and long endeavor but we believe that each obstacle also has its counterarguments and with creative and empathetic communications all these emotional barriers can be addressed and overcome.